God I love curry. Spicy, rich, dense curry that coats your mouth with grease and leaves you gasping and fumbling for the nearest glass of iced water.
I blame my maw for this. She is a seriously talented cook. From an early age I have been fed curry in every shape, size, smell and texture you could possibly imagine. All made with incredibly fresh ingredients without a jar of Patak’s in sight.
So what does this have to do with being homesick? Unfortunately in Mexico, curry is not seen as the cuisine de jour. Sushi and Chinese are extremely popular and widely available. In this city of 23 million people there are only 4 curry restaurants, all clustered around the Pakistan and Indian embassies. And of course, horrendously expensive.
I had just returned from a week long road trip with a friend; eking out our meager teaching salaries by staying in cheap hotels and eating only Mexican street food. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Mexican street food but sometimes you just need a curry.
Luckily, by the power of Skype my maw is on call to help me realise my foodie whims. This is regardless of the fact she is 6000 miles away and there is a 7 hour time difference. Crawling in after a week of torrential rain with no money, a car that smelt of decomposition (no idea why) and the realisation that summer was dwindling away I felt the need of comfort. To me, that means my maw’s cooking (and a bed with no dubious stains on the sheets).
Biriyani is a tradition in my house. The British eat their roast on Sunday but in my household, every Friday it was biriyani day. Maw would get up before everyone else in the house and start assembling this rich, opulent, Maharajah-worthy dish which would take her almost 4-5 hours. Throughout the morning the smell would start percolating through the house and by about 2pm my dad and my brother and I would be hanging off her skirts desperate for a mouthful of the heady, sumptuous nectar that had permeated our very senses leaving us salivating like rabid dogs.
So, my plan, to create the taste of home in my tiny, ill-equipped kitchen with a temperamental oven and no access to any decent Indian spices? Piece of cake..
Firstly, my ingredients (except the natural yogurt which I forgot to add to the picture). I’m not too specific about quantities in general because I’m the ultimate bucket chemist. I always add spices to my taste.
- vegetable oil
- basmati rice that tastes like it has been stored in a dead mans chest for 200 years (Tilda – I miss you!)
- 3 chicken breasts (actually 1 chicken breast and a potato in my case because I am skint)
- a tin of tomatoes (which I forgot to buy so instead ran down to the corner shop to buy some ancient oozing tomatoes only to realise I’d forgotten to put any shoes on in my haste and was getting funny looks from everyone)
- garam masala (mine is AWFUL – tastes just of cloves and nothing else)
- natural yogurt
- an onion (hurrah – something I already have!)
- cumin powder
- coriander seed powder (or in my case whole seeds pounded with YM’s hammer)
- fresh chilli
First, heat some oil in a pan.
Finely chop the onion and add to the pan. Somehow, turn four cloves of garlic, some ginger and 2 chillies into a paste (I used my garlic press) and add to the onions.
Fry off on a medium heat until they turn golden-ish.
Meanwhile, finely chop your tomatoes. I personally feel that life is too short to finely chop anything so I just cut up my ancient, oozing, wizened tomatoes and shoved them in the blender.
By now your onions and what-not should have changed colour. They should be translucent – goldish brown.
Then add your tomatoes and give everything a good stir.
Add a teaspoon of coriander seed powder
Add a teaspoon of cumin powder
Add a teaspoon of salt
Now leave everything to simmer until it all looks like one big thick tomato-ey paste
Once it reaches this stage add your chicken (and potato)
Stir the chicken and potato around until it is thoroughly coated in the spicy tomato goo
Then add a glass of water and leave to simmer until almost all the water has evaporated (and the potato is cooked – you might need to add more water). I say glass because in my house we use fortified china mugs and plastic picnic glasses. This is due to YM’s amazing ability to break anything made of glass and having to replace glasses on a weekly basis made me realise that we could not go on like this.
Once your potato is soft and all the water has evaporated take the pan off the heat. Add four tablespoons of natural yogurt. The yogurt has to be at room temperature or it will curdle. Add a little at a time, gently stir it in and then add more.
Put the pan on a seriously low heat and simmer ever so gently for 10 minutes. I followed these instructions and my yogurt curdled anyway.
Still, it tasted good. Finish off the chicken sauce by stirring in a teaspoon of garam masala (arghgh – mine tastes awful!!)
Hurrah! Chicken sauce done! Now on to the rice.
1 and a half cups of rice into a pan
Add 3 of the same cup of water. This is the rule my maw taught me for making basmati rice and it always works. I’m actually a little surprised at myself for sharing my guide to perfect basmati with the internet but I suppose my maw was good enough to share it with me.
Add a pinch of salt.
Also a drop of vegetable oil
Simmer it away on a medium-low heat until the water has almost evaporated.
Switch the heat off and fluff up the almost cooked rice with a fork. Look at my perfect rice! It’s perfect!
Great, now the rice is done. Now to start assembling this chicken-y, rice-y beast of a dish. I thought I started off strongly. Alternating layers of rice and chicken sauce in a pan – how hard can it be? Unfortunately, I have the worst spatial awareness in both hemispheres. After the third layer I realised I would have to start it all over again in a bigger pot. The same pot that the chicken sauce was in.
First a layer of rice
Followed by a layer of chicken sauce
Then realise that the pan is waaaayyy too small so start in another pan and cover half the kitchen with rice in the process.
Finally finish making your layers.
Cover the top of the pan with foil and then put the lid on. Not sure why.
Cook in the oven at 170 degrees C for 20 min.
Still with me folks? Because we’re on the last step now – crunchy onion topping. I adore my maw’s crispy crunchy fried onions. No matter how much she tried to guard them from me I would always find them and eat them before they had a chance to go on top of the biriyani. Eventually, she started making extra onions and hiding them in the freezer. Unfortunately for her, I found those too.
Anyway, finely chop an onion. And this time, unfortunately, unless you have a fancy kitchen chopper, you can’t shove everything in the blender. Add to a frying pan with half a cup of vegetable oil.
Fry the onions until golden brown and then remove with a slotted spoon. Or in my case, fry until half the onions are burnt and the other half are still raw because my oven is a piece of crap.
Lay your onions out on kitchen roll to allow them to get rid of some oil and become deliciously crispy. Or, lay them out on a kitchen towel because you never remember to buy kitchen roll.
Finally! Lets put the damn thing together and eat it! Although, by this point I’m pretty fed up of biriyani, and there are no rich spicy smells coming out of the oven which is worrying. A good biriyani should be smelt all the way down the street!
Anyway, the finished product.
Well, here’s the kicker. It tastes…okay. Nothing more, nothing less. YM had 2 helpings and waxed lyrical but for me it was a bit of a disappointment.
Firstly, that horrible, clove-y garam masala ruined the taste of the chicken sauce. The ginger, garlic, cumin etc were barely discernible under the overpowering taste of clove. My maw makes her garam masala from scratch and blends it fresh. Now, I can see why.
Secondly, it was quite dry. Again, I think more chicken sauce with actual chicken would have rectified this.
And thirdly, well, it just didn’t taste like my maw’s.
(YM feels that I am being overly critical and it tasted better than okay. Unfortunately for him, I am a perfectionist.)